“It’s been an incredible journey,” said retired Staff Sgt. Van Booth as he arrived Saturday morning on the square of his hometown where family, friends and well-wishers greeted him, waving American flags high in the air. “I’ve done a lot of healing, and I think I’ve helped other veterans to heal a little, too, along the way.”
The stop in downtown Fayetteville was at mile 2,536 of his 3,000-mile walk across the country, a walk aimed at raising awareness of veterans’ issues, particularly PTSD and suicide. He started his journey eight months ago, on Feb. 23, in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and he expects to finish it sometime around Christmas in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“We’re not as divided a country as you would think,” Booth said, sharing some of his experiences. “I’ve just met so many different types of folks, way more good people than bad, all from different beliefs and walks of life ... It’s really been an adventure.”
Across mountains clad with snow and ice, through deserts with nighttime lows in the 30’s and daytime highs of 110, Booth has walked his way across the country, oftentimes going days without cell service and most often making camp under the stars.
“I’ve made a lot of friends,” he said, adding that people have shown him a great deal of friendship and kindness. In every state, he’s run into old Army friends and met other veterans, and together, they’ve shared their experiences. “It’s been therapeutic for me.”
Healing for Booth got its start when he learned about a program called Operation Song in Nashville, where a group of songwriters partner with veterans and help them create songs about their experiences – his song, “My Brother Bo”, was about his best friend with whom he had served in Iraq and who was killed.
With him he carries a guitar that started the journey without any strings, and for every 500 miles he walks, he adds a single string to it to symbolize how veterans suffering from PTSD are “broken” but can learn to be whole again. Along the way, veterans and others have signed the guitar, some leaving encouraging messages.
“It’s hard to find real estate on it anymore,” he said, adding that once the sixth string is added and his journey complete, he may give it to a group in Chattanooga called Freedom Sings USA for display. “Every Wednesday, they have veterans come in, and they sit and write songs ... I’m thinking about giving it to them, so that they can tell veterans about it, and maybe, it’ll inspire them.”
From Fayetteville, Booth headed south to Huntsville, Ala., and then he plans to swing over to Chattanooga where he will be featured in a pre-taped television show for Veterans Day. He’ll then head to Georgia and on to his final state, South Carolina.
Asked how many interviews with media he’s done along the way, Booth said he’s done quite a few.
“I’ve gotten good at it,” he laughed, saying some of the interviews have been with national media while others have been local. “I had one newspaper guy show up on a bicycle ... Most of the time, I pass through towns quietly, but when an interview is offered, I love it, because it helps me get the word out.”
A book about his experiences could be in his future. The veteran has kept a journal of his experiences and taken thousands of pictures along the way.
“This has been an adventure,” he said, adding he always wakes up, looking forward to what the day might hold.